Is a Dress Code Required for NBC's 'Prime Suspect'?

Tuning In: Maria Bello's Boots and Hat Won't Be Regulation in Effort to Reclaim Thursdays at 10

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Maria Bello in NBC's gritty new police drama 'Prime Suspect'
Maria Bello in NBC's gritty new police drama 'Prime Suspect'

Here's a bit of a head-scratcher: Why is the tough New York detective in NBC's new "Prime Suspect" wearing such a fashionable chapeau?

That hat -- in some circles already being referred to as that hat! -- is a central element in the wardrobe of actress Maria Bello as she sets out to help ratings -challenged NBC reclaim the 10 p.m. hour on Thursday nights. NBC once ruled that time slot with such high-quality Peacock durables as "E.R." and "Hill Street Blues." In her gritty new cop drama, "Prime Suspect," Ms. Bello plays a tough detective ... who also knows how to dress.

She's hard-boiled, but her look isn't.

In the drama's pilot, Ms. Bello wears her gaudy fedora, complete with jaunty white stripe. When her character, Jane Timoney, attends a police funeral, her two-tone raincoat stands out among a sea of suits and dress blues. In a promotional ad, she's seen in a black leather vest, rippled mauve scarf, open-collared shirt with fly-away lapels and a long purplish-gray coat. And her high boots aren't exactly regulation.

In short, her character often looks nothing like a cop but an awful lot like a shrewd connoisseur of the racks at Nordstrom. This strikes a contrast to other big-city female cops on the small screen. You don't see Jennifer Esposito wearing that kind of stuff on CBS's "Blue Bloods" or Mariska Hargitay gussying up all that much on "Law & Order: SVU."

So will it work for viewers -- or break the spell?

It's up to you whether a fictional character's clothing choices really matter all that much as the five broadcast networks, and some of their competitors on cable, launch dozens of new shows between now and the end of October. "Prime Suspect" has more oomph behind it than many of the offerings at NBC. It's based on a cult-favorite British police drama, boasts a stellar cast and doesn't flinch when putting its female heroine in very real danger. (Ms. Bello's character takes some pretty scary punches to the face -- is this really the network that banished "Southland" to cable for being too dark?)

Most TV shows don't hew anywhere near to the way real life operates anyway. If Detective Andy Sipowicz of "NYPD Blue" were a real-life cop, he'd likely have been drummed off the force in the show's pilot, which sees him drunk a good part of the time and testifying in court that he planted evidence in a mobster's car.

Ms. Bello, whose previous work ranges from "A History of Violence" to "Coyote Ugly," seems to have received some leeway here. As Ms. Bello disclosed to TV critics and reporters during the annual dog-and-pony show known as the Television Critics Association press tour, she was given the hat by a friend, and instantly knew it would help define Detective Timoney's look.

"I was obsessed with the hat," said Ms. Bello, as quoted in Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper. "Yes. I feel like it's my magic hat. When I put it on, I was this character. It felt right to me. It felt like this is who Jane is ."

In an interview, "Prime Suspect" showrunner and executive producer Alexandra Cunningham said Ms. Bello is also partial to the boots. "The high boots are kind of a Maria thing," she said. "Maria is very into these. They are not regulation, and at some point in the story, someone might say something to her about that ," she said.

The wardrobe may have been chosen to help viewers understand that Detective Timoney is a character who innately moves against the grain, said Tod Burke, a former Maryland police officer who now studies police and society as a professor of criminal justice and associate dean at Radford University in Radford, Va. And it might in turn give a cue to real-life police, who have already been influenced by everything from more relaxed clothing on "Barney Miller" to shoulder holsters on "Starsky & Hutch," he said.

Telly Savalas wasn't exactly subtle as Kojak.
Telly Savalas wasn't exactly subtle as Kojak.

Even so, the hat, the scarf and the rest might be unhelpful enough in real life that viewers can't get over the disconnect. "When you're in plainclothes, you have a lot more freedom to dress the way you want, as long as it's not provocative or it's going to draw attention to you," Mr. Burke said. "You don't want to draw attention to yourself as a police officer."

The creative forces behind "Prime Suspect" aren't making the character up whole cloth, said Ms. Cunningham, the showrunner. Producers spent time interviewing female police detectives to get their take on how Detective Timoney should look. "We wear makeup," they said, according to Ms. Cunningham. "We want to look nice." "We spend more time here than anywhere else, and we want people to understand we're women."

Those sentiments played into Ms. Bello's desire to make Jane Timoney a cop with some distinguishing trademarks, a la Kojak or Columbo. "Jane is what women would call an 'investment dresser': I'd rather have three really good things than ten sort of crappy things," Ms. Cunningham explained. "Our perception was that Jane goes to Barney's during their house sales and picks up some good stuff, has it tailored, and then wears it over and over in different sorts of combinations."

And the creative team is determined to make the clothes work for the show. So, yes, Detective Timoney may get some flak from colleagues. And she may dress differently for the squad room than for the street . "You're not going to see her wearing long earrings," Ms. Cunningham vowed. "You're never going to see her wearing heels."

On TV, where some sort of flash and distinction is more than necessary, that may be as much reality as a police show can stand.

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Tuning In is an ongoing series of commentaries by Ad Age TV Editor Brian Steinberg on the TV schedule, the ads it carries and changes within the industry. Follow him on Twitter.

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